April 8, 2015 -  There have been numerous posts about the Black-Tailed Godwit in southwestern Indiana. Some of them have b...

RBS - Good God(wit)! - by Chris Collins


April 8, 2015 - 

There have been numerous posts about the Black-Tailed Godwit in southwestern Indiana. Some of them have been very descriptive and entertaining, like this one from Mark McShane. Others have consisted of one word, “Yes”. We even have a post about it on this blog from Jacob. Well, this is my story…

Friday April 3rd

Thanks Jeremy and Jeff!
As an administrator of the INDIANA RARE BIRD ALERT Facebook group I receive a notification whenever a new post is made in the group. Often they are birds that I have already seen (or occasionally someone selling sunglasses). 

At 3:01 PM I received an alert that Jeff Timmons had posted in the group. Knowing Jeff is a reliable source, I opened the group page and saw a photo of a godwit with the caption “Hudsonian Godwit at Oatsville today.” Cool… But then I thought, “Is that a Hudsonian Godwit? Looks a lot different than the ones I’ve seen.” That is when I noticed Jeff’s caption, “Black-Tailed Godwit found by Jeremy Ross 4/3/15”. WOW!

From there it followed the usual Rogue Birder methodology:
 -        Post it in the RB group chat with a “???”
 -        Jacob replies, “In Ohio?”
 -        I say “Indiana”, and then everyone settles down a bit.
 -        Jacob misidentifies it
 -        Greg corrects him using world-class logic, i.e. “The post says Black-Tailed”
 -        “How rare is it?”
 -        <profanities as we see how rare it really is>
 -        Post to ABA RBA
 -        “How far is it?”
 -        “Can we get a 10 year range map?”
 -        <more profanities>
 -        We turn to the experts for confirmation – Greg Neise said “Wow”, Jen Brumfield said "Holy Moly[sic]", Doreene Linzell said, “We already have one, thanks.”

How rare is it? It's THAT rare!
Next it’s time to start the planning process. Who’s going? What time? And who’s paying for gas? Jacob was in, of course. I was preparing my speech to give to my wife. Jeremy was saying, “I’m gonna go look for Smith’s Longspurs.” WHAA???

A few choice words and a couple of slaps upside the head later, and Jeremy saw the light. I received a message from James Muller in Columbus wanting to join the party. Excitement was building. Jeff and I were pushing for updates – getting them every 30-45 minutes, but wanting them every 30-45 seconds. 

Following a brief discussion with my wife, and a gentle reminder that it was Easter weekend and that there were things that need done around the house, my plans changed and I wouldn’t be making the trip with the guys. I thought, “Well, if I can’t go I can still help them get it.”

Laura Keene's photo of the road to the Godwit
We received steady updates through 7:15PM. Then the news no one wanted to hear came in. “Just flew. South and west. Out of sight.” Then, around 8:00PM Laura Keene posted a photo of the roads in the area. It has now become a common sight to see there, but it was shocking at the time. We took a moment to appreciate the magnitude of the undertaking (“Damn!”). The team decided to wait and see if the godwit was relocated, and just stay local on Saturday if it wasn’t. I felt a bit better about not being able to make the trip.

Saturday April 4th

Jacob documented the story of Saturday’s trip here. From my side of things, I was constantly updating the IRBA and the ABA RBA Facebook groups with Jeff as the sightings came in. I got the kitchen cleaned up, laundry done, swept the deck, and some other chores while silently ignoring the call of the wild. Seeing photos of all of the folks at the party didn’t help.

Birder Party! (photo by Richard Vernier
The team snagged the bird at around 3:45 PM. In the meantime, Dan, Greg, Alex E. and I talked about Greater White-Fronted Geese, Bronzed Cowbirds, and Eastern Phoebes (it's rough staying home during a chase!).

The guys made it home safely, and kindly didn't say a whole lot about it. With the next day being Easter Sunday, my only hope now was for it to stick around until Monday. At 6:30 PM Jeff reported that the bird had flown and was relocated in Wheeling Bottoms. Still hope.

Sunday April 5th

Easter Sunday! I decided to put the bird out of my mind and focus on the holiday. That lasted until 9:00 AM. Jeff: “Michael Flake is on bird now 9:00 AM EST”. The godwit was still present at the new location in Wheeling Bottoms. Still a chance!

The final report for the day came in from Brian Johnson saying that the bird was still present when he left at 5:30 PM. It was time to start working on a plan. I had seen online that some Indiana birders were hoping to make the trek down south. I posted a message on Birding in Indiana – NO RULES Facebook group asking if anyone wanted to carpool. A few minutes later I received a couple of replies. Sam Plew from LaGrange County and Nick Kiehl from Marion County would be meeting me at 5:45 AM near Mt. Comfort and we would make the trek together. Bird On!

Monday April 6th

My eagerness to see the bird resulted in my covering the 111 miles 30 minutes ahead of schedule. No worries, though, as my passengers were also early. Because it was so early, and still dark outside, there were no reports of the bird. We were making the trip on faith - 157 more miles into the unknown.

Motivation (photo by John Kendall)
When we arrived at Wheeling Bottoms other birders were there and had their scopes set up. We knew that they hadn’t spotted it yet because their scopes were all facing in different directions – obviously still searching. Fellow Rogue Birder Alex Clark and his wife Sam were on site and beginning their search, as well. Every Greater Yellowlegs gave us pause. “Ooh!” – “no”. “Ooh!” – “no”. Eventually we were trying to turn every female Green-Winged Teal into the Black-Tailed Godwit. After an hour and a half of scanning and relocating around the flooded field we still hadn’t found the bird. We did find a pair of Long-Billed Dowitchers and an early Stilit Sandpiper amongst the Pectoral Sandpipers and Yellowlegs, but no Godwit.

Everyone exchanged phone numbers and the groups decided to split up to see if the bird could be relocated in another area. Driving anywhere required traversing areas where the water was rushing across the road. Attempts to check the original site were foiled by completely flooded roads. Sam, Nick, and I returned to the Wheeling Bottoms location to map out a course of action. Immediately after we decided to check to the north Sam’s phone rang. Sam: “Hello? Really? Where?” Brendan Grube had miraculously relocated the bird less than 5 minutes away!!! 

There's a Black-Tailed Godwit out there!
I make a quick (well, as quick as you can on a narrow county road with water on both sides) u-turn and headed back in the other direction. Alex was about to pass us going the opposite way, so we flagged him down and told him to follow us. We went back through the perilous water rushing over the street, made a left down a gravel road, a right down another, twisted and turned for a moment and there was what every birder loves to see: A bunch of scopes all pointed in the same exact direction – they had the bird!

We stopped in the middle of the road, hopped out, and annexed the nearest scope to get a quick peek. Black-Tailed Godwit! Count it! Ok, now we could breathe. I moved the car out of the road and said hello to everyone. We came to the consensus that it would be safe to venture out into the field a ways to get better looks and perhaps a few photos. Pete Grube led the way and we stopped occasionally to watch the godwit and take photos. Once we were about 150-200 yards away we just stopped and watched.

My best digiscope ever!
I tried digiscoping but I really suck at it. You can just barely make out the bird if you already know what it is. Fortunately a really nice gentleman, who’s name I did not get, let Alex and I connect our cameras to his 800mm lens! We snapped some shots and then made our way back to the car. Now that we weren’t in such a panic we noticed the Vesper and Savannah sparrows and other birds around the area. We tallied over 50 species during our time there, but there was only one that REALLY stood out.

UPDATE: After we left the area the flooding became much worse. The roads are now completely covered and impassible. I would not recommend looking for this bird until the waters recede a bit or unless you have scuba gear and a boat. Stephanie Houchins was kind enough to provide this photo to demonstrate how severe the flooding is. I was on this road two days ago.

Road to the godwit 4/8/15
A big “Thank You” to Jeremy Ross for the incredible find and for getting the word out. To Jeff Timmons, Mark Welter, Pete Grube, and all of the Indiana birders that provided updates. Thanks Sam and Nick for making the drive much more entertaining! Can’t wait for the next chase! #roguebirders
Black-Tailed Godwit #344

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  1. Nice account of your chase Chris. I would add that Brendan Grube made the remarkable relocation of the bird we all saw at a distance of 0.6 mile from the road. I doubt any of us would have the bird on our list today had it not been for his eyes.

    1. Pete, You are absolutely correct! Brendan was, for sure, the Hero of the Day!! Please pass along our gratitude!


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